Just before a fire started on a warship that burned for nearly five days in San Diego last summer, a witness told investigators he saw a fellow sailor — known to his leadership for showing disdain toward the Navy — walking to the spot where the blaze first ignited.

Ryan Sawyer Mays, a 20-year-old from Kentucky, carried a metal bucket into the vessel’s lower storage area, according to new court documents identifying him as the person accused of destroying the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard. Navy officials announced last week that a sailor had been charged with aggravated arson and willful hazarding of a vessel in connection to the July 2020 fire, but they did not publicly identify the suspect.

Mays is not only accused of intentionally setting the blaze, but also of tampering with fire-safety equipment on the ship and crime-scene evidence in an attempt to hinder the federal investigation, according to documents filed in the Southern California U.S. District Court and unsealed Tuesday.

More than 70 people were injured trying to extinguish the fire.

Mays, a seaman apprentice, joined the Navy in May 2019. He attempted SEAL training later that year but dropped out after five days, according to court documents. Mays was assigned to the Bonhomme Richard in March 2020 and was responsible for routine maintenance as part of the ship’s deck department.

The sailor was aboard the ship on July 12, 2020, when the fire broke out but repeatedly denied involvement when speaking to investigators, claiming it was all a “setup,” the documents state.

Mays and his lawyer did not respond to requests for comment from The Washington Post late Wednesday. Attorney Gary Barthel told the San Diego Union-Tribune on Tuesday that Mays adamantly denies playing a role in the ship’s destruction.

The morning of the blaze, a sailor who was standing near his post on the Bonhomme Richard spotted a man dressed in clean coveralls walking toward the lower storage area, court records state. About five minutes later, people began reporting white smoke coming out of the ship.

The witness, one of 177 of the ship’s crew members interviewed during the investigation, did not initially identify Mays by name. But three words the man allegedly uttered “sarcastically” before descending into the lower storage area, the sailor later told federal investigators, gave him away: “I love Deck.”

Mays was known for saying the expression, court records state, leaving his colleague “90 percent sure” it was him.

That same witness told investigators Mays “hates” the U.S. Navy and the fleet. Command Master Chief Jose Hernandez, the ship’s top enlisted leader, also told investigators that Mays was “a person who showed disdain towards authority and the U.S. Navy.”

Service leaders noted, according to the documents, that sailors who try to become Navy SEALs but fail to complete the training “are frequently very challenging” when assigned to fill more traditional roles on ships.

Another witness interviewed after the blaze — which tore through the ship as it reached 1,000 degrees — said Mays alerted other sailors that the vessel was on fire.

Several sailors were being treated at a hospital after a fire broke out July 12 aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard at a pier at Naval Base San Diego in California. (The Washington Post)

Days after the fire was extinguished, detectives found a capless plastic bottle with a small amount of liquid close to where the fire originated, court records state. Authorities flagged the bottle as evidence and continued searching the ship. By the time they came back to retrieve the evidence, the bottle was missing, according to the records.

They later found three additional bottles, one of them with fuel, and two aluminum cans nearby. Several expended carbon dioxide cartridges that appeared to have exploded during the fire were also found inside a washer and dryer unit.

Investigators also found three of four nearby fire hoses had been disconnected, the court records state.

In July 2020, Mays responded to investigators’ questionnaire about the fire, reporting a “burning fuel/rubbery smell” that morning — scents consistent with the materials found near where the blaze began, court documents state. Of the crew members screened, investigators noted that Mays was the only person to report those smells.

The sailor also reported feeling a “small amount of adrenaline and anxiety” when he learned about the fire, the documents state. Investigators later interviewed Mays for hours, during which he repeatedly denied setting the fire or being in the ship’s lower deck area, the court records add.

Mays is not being detained as he awaits a preliminary hearing, which has not yet been scheduled, a Navy spokesman, Cmdr. Sean Robertson, told The Post. The sailor is now assigned to the staff of a San Diego-based amphibious squadron.

Robertson said the evidence from the criminal investigation “resulted in the identification of one suspect.” Two other investigations into the fire remain ongoing.

Navy officials announced in November that the Bonhomme Richard would be scrapped after determining it would cost up to $3.2 billion to repair the ship.

The vessel was decommissioned in April, despite a days-long effort to save the warship. The blaze has left the military with one less warship capable of carrying thousands of sailors and Marines — and their aircraft — to sea. The loss complicated deployment schedules and the Navy’s ability to project power near global hot spots.